From the editorial mail: Maestro Guerguan Tsenov speaks
My name is Guerguan Tsenov and I am writing to you to expose what may well be one of the most fraudulent financial scams ever to exist in the entire Fort Lauderdale musical life. The name of this organization is the South Florida Symphony Orchestra and I am writing on the behalf of a group of current and former musicians of this orchestra to express our extreme outrage and humiliation caused be the despicable behavior of the leaders of the SFSO Ms. Sebrina Alfonso (music director) and Ms. Jaqueline Lorber (president). We are writing to you only after we have exhausted every available option to establish a civilized and respectful dialogue with both Ms. Alfonso and Ms. Lorber. During the last few weeks, our outrage has been shared by many other colleagues from all over the United States who have also been victims of what looks less like a symphony orchestra and more like a financial scam.
Many of the SFSO musicians have not been paid for any of the orchestra’s concerts in 2019, despite the fact that according to our contracts with the SFSO, we should be paid “within two weeks of final performance”. Occasionally, musicians are being told that “their checks are in the mail”, but these checks never arrive. At this very moment SFSO is inviting musicians from all over the United States to play in the following April concert series, while the orchestra does not have the sufficient funds to pay even for its January concerts.
SFSO has a very long and very disgraceful history of late payments or lack of payments to their musicians. There are musicians who never received their paychecks from as far back as 2014. Indeed, the SFSO has disgraced its reputation to such an extend that few years ago two of their musicians who never got paid asked SFSO to register their unpaid checks as tax-deductible donations towards the orchestra, as they finally lost hope of getting their pay checks. In 2010, the SFSO (then Key West Symphony) had to cancel their entire April concert series because of inability to pay its musicians and later in the same year changed its name and continued to function as the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. Below, I am attaching an article by the South Florida Classical Review from May 10, 2011, that clearly shows that SFSO’s financial misconduct is a systematic practice.
The system of exploitation in SFSO is very simple and very cruel. The moment any of the musicians start asking questions or protest their late payments or the lack of payments, Sebrina Alfonso immediately fires them and hires a new group of absolutely unaware musicians (many of whom out of state) who very soon become the victims of the same diabolic scheme. Basically, the musicians in SFSO are treated like illegal immigrants without work permit, as this includes rarely seen verbal abuse. This systematic abuse and humiliation caused by the music director Sebrina Alfonso during rehearsals is something that makes many of the musicians to leave the orchestra after only one concert series. During the very recent preparation for the January 2019 performance of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess the uncontrolled behavior of Sebrina Alfonso escalated to such a degree that it culminated into a physical assault on the director of the production, as this happened during the dress rehearsal for the Key West performance of the opera in front of the entire orchestra, singing cast and stage crew. Earlier in the process of preparation for the Porgy and Bess opera, one of the key members of the special effects crew left in the middle of the process deeply outraged by the extremely disrespectful way he was treated by Sebrina Alfonso and he was barely persuaded to come back from the airport and continue his work on the production.
It has become a common practice for the musicians from the SFSO to receive (after a painfully prolonged delay) checks that are not for the correct amount, as these musicians are brought to the humiliation to call the SFSO office every day and beg for their proper pay. At that point, usually the orchestra would start bargaining with the musicians until one of the parties finally gets tired and yields. This was the case with my own paycheck from SFSO’s performance on December 13, 2018 (Nightmare Before Christmas performance). After I received the check at the end of January 2019 (with 4 weeks delay) the check was for $63.41 less than it was supposed to be, as the orchestra tried to not pay me for the overtime rehearsal as they are required. It took me 2 months to bargain over these $63.41 until few days ago the orchestra finally agreed to pay me the missing amount. Now I am in a process of bargaining my pay check for my work on the Porgy and Bess opera that was staged by the SFSO in January 2019, as again few days ago (with 2 months delay and for a reason that SFSO didn’t specify) I received a check for half of the amount I am owed by the orchestra. Basically, SFSO is paying their musicians whatever they wish in complete disregard to their own contracts, as it is now a common practice in this orchestra musicians to get paid on time only if they refuse to play at the concert or if they threaten to file a lawsuit.
SFSO recently sent (in the middle of the season) new contracts to their musicians changing the pay period from “within two weeks of final performance” to “within four weeks of final performance” which does not make any sense since the payments come way after this now newly introduced 1-month period. These new contracts are also another very ugly and very transparent move in this scam, as now pay periods overlap in such a way that musicians are tricked to play not one, but two concert series, before they realize (too late) that their payment will not be on time or will never come. And because the poor musicians have already invested so much time and money (as I said, many of the musicians come from out of state and some of them even pay for their air tickets), they keep playing “for free” hoping that eventually they will get their pay checks and thus turning themselves into slaves.
Along with introducing this outrageous one-month pay period, some of the rehearsal and performance dates from the season calendar are being changed at the very last moment forcing musicians to choose between complying with the changes and canceling other work they have committed to, or keeping their earlier commitments and being fired from the SFSO for “not being flexible”. Those of the musicians who asked questions or who expressed disagreement with these sudden and practically impossible changes were fired immediately.
What makes SFSO’s activity especially harmful for the local community is the fact that this organization receives every year hundreds of thousands of dollars in the form of public grants. These funds are practically wasted in overbooking or by sheer financial carelessness. For example, two years ago more than dozen musicians were overbooked for one of the concert series and they were paid without even showing up at the rehearsal or the concert venue. Of course, this translated into about $10 000 waste. Yes, that is how public and private funds are systematically wasted by the SFSO. Few years ago, one of the major grantors of the SFSO froze their donations towards the orchestra until the orchestra finally paid their musicians. Last week a former sponsor of the SFSO from Key West who was generally donating to the educational program of the orchestra contacted me to tell me that they have stopped supporting the SFSO due to complete lack of responsibility and disrespectful behavior shown by Sebrina Alfonso. Financial irresponsibility such as this is the specific reason for the musicians from the SFSO to not get paid on time or to not get paid at all.
Most of the people who have worked in the administration of the SFSO stay not longer than a year and leave horrified by the almost criminal activity of this organization and by the impossible humiliation they have to face. Two years ago a person who has been for years on the American Federation of Musicians Unfair List, was appointed as a Personnel Manager of the SFSO, despite the several warnings from many of the musicians from the SFSO that the person in question was officially discredited.
SFSO recently started paying musicians through Venmo as musicians do not even know what these payments are for. This type of “semi-official” payments causes the musicians tremendous problems with keeping track of their SFSO income and with their tax reports. SFSO also started paying what they call “partial payments” or just a small portion from the amount they owe for a certain concert, an act that could be described only as a simple wage theft. My wife and I were personally outraged by the fact that we received our SFSO 2018 tax forms only a week ago, on March 22, 2019, via email. Also, musicians are asked to fill new W-9 forms now almost before each concert as no-one has any explanation why is this necessary. The prevailing opinion is that this is only another way for the SFSO to prolong the pay period.
In the last few weeks, many of the musicians tried to express their deep concerns about the overall situation, but the only reaction from the SFSO so far has been only more verbal and written insults, unsupported accusations and blocking profiles in the social medias. Such a behavior is simply incompatible with the mission of the SFSO to “delight, inspire and educate the community we serve through music”.